1. Henro Intro

31 Mar

The view of Wakayama Castle from my hotel room

The Japanese policeman loomed over me as I sat waiting for the Keisei Skyliner train to arrive to whisk me into Tokyo proper.

“Passport please.”

I handed over my passport to the third official in thirty minutes. Japan seems to have ratcheted up the checks on foreigners coming into their country a great deal since I first breezed into the Land of the Rising Sun five years ago. Back then it was smile, nod and then you were free to go out to visit your first vending machine. Nowadays it’s fingerprints, photo, and oh-by-the-way you’re not a teacher working illegally, are you?

I handed over my passport and fielded his terse questions.

“Software Engineer.”

“Travel or business?”
I smiled and tapped my chest. “Henro. Shikoku”.

At this, the policeman drew in his breath sharply – “eeeeeeh?” – and then threw his head back and laughed heartily, but not in an unkind way, utterly evaporating the tension of the situation. And having been in Tokyo and Osaka for three weeks now, every single one of the Japanese locals I have met have responded with similar incredulity, puzzlement or amusement when I have explained to them the purpose of my trip to Japan this time.

For over a thousand years now, Japanese pilgrims – known as henro – have been steadily trekking a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage route looping around the ruggedly beautiful rural Japanese island of Shikoku, linking 88 temples, which as any Back to the Future fan will know, is a very special number indeed. In those days, the 800-mile route was covered on foot, and was a treacherous undertaking spanning many months. 21st century pilgrims, on the other hand, are more likely than not to be sat inside a safe, warm tour bus with a group leader at the front lethally brandishing a flag and a microphone. The Japanese who have the time or inclination to tackle the entire route by feet power alone are in the vast minority, and even fewer foreigners do so every year.

It was exactly my kind of trip.

The moment I heard about the trail, my interest was piqued. It seemed perfect for a cycle tour. I had been getting into my cycling quite a bit more of late following an overland trip through Western Europe a couple of years back. Cycling eight hundred miles up and down mountains sounded like a great challenge – and an interesting topic for a travel article to pitch at a national British newspaper on my return. And whilst as an atheist I would not be performing the trip for religious reasons, it would be a hell of an experience: plenty of time to reflect on things, and a surefire way of learning more about yourself and your limits.

As my hedonistic few weeks in Tokyo and Osaka drew to an end, my thoughts increasingly turned to the pilgrimage, about which I had mixed emotions. The first to strike was a wave of sheer terror as it dawned on me what I had let myself in for: three to four weeks of constant physical exertion up mountain and down dale through a land known for its hostile weather conditions and remote, windswept stretches. Yet even more terrifying for me was that I had to successfully overcome the language barrier and ensure I found shelter every night. Whilst I would plan carefully and book ahead wherever possible, if my progress was impaired for any reason and I didn’t make my goal for the day I would need to find lodgings myself. I spoke very little Japanese, and could read even less. I had read horror stories of Japanese-speaking foreigners turning up in rural parts of Hokkaido and being refused accommodation blatantly on grounds of race; narrow-minded bigots exist everywhere, sadly. Thankfully, I didn’t expect that sort of experience in Shikoku. In fact, as a pilgrim quite the reverse was far more likely. Henro – even foreigners – who tackle the 88 temples route are treated with a great deal of respect and are commonly offered gifts of food, lodgings or even money, and such offerings – called osettai – are thoroughly impolite to refuse. If I was really stuck, I would surely be able to get help. But the nagging feeling of “what if?” things didn’t go to plan lingered in the back of my head.

As things fell into place though – bike bought, GPS loaded up, first day’s route studied – and I pored over my maps and researched my trip from my room in Wakayama, the ferry port from which I would leave for Shikoku, the feeling of fear thankfully slowly subsided, to be replaced by an excitement of what the challenge of the 88 Temples would throw at me.

Next: 2. Ready to Go »

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